Cold War Continental Air Defense- The Air Force as Guardians of the Homeland

While the majority of the Air Force budget went to building up Strategic Air Command’s massive fleet of bombers, there was also an enormous investment in the air defense of the continental United States during Cold War.

The Air Force had laid waste to Rome, Berlin and Tokyo during World War II.  Britain, France, Russia and most of the other major combatants had felt the fury of strategic air attacks. Alone of the major powers, the US was protected by the vast distances of the Atlantic and Pacific, and suffered virtually no damage to the homeland.

But at the dawn of the cold war, two factors meant the US would no longer enjoy that invulnerability. First, the ever increasing performance of aircraft meant that intercontinental ranges were possible. Indeed, the B-36 bomber program was started in 1940 to confront the possibility that Britain would fall, and bomber attacks on Germany would have to be launched directly from the US. Clearly, the Soviet Union would be able to display that same level of technological capability. Secondly, of course, the atomic bomb changed the entire calculus of how bomber attacks worked. No longer were thousand strong attacks needed to destroy a city. A thousand bombers would destroy an entire nation.  Allowing any single bomber through to an American city would have disastrous consequences.

Not surprisingly, a large investment went into protecting American cities (and less well publicized, but just as important, strategic military facilities such as airbases).  Early efforts used the same aircraft and radars used in World War II, but advances soon lead to new radars, battle management systems, and interceptors in cooperation with the Army Nike Ajax/Hercules missile systems. Eventually, we’d come to know this organization as NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

This was at the time the world’s most sophisticated Integrated Air Defense System (IADS). We’ll take a look at the three most visible facets of this program:

  • The Distant Early Warning Line- The DEW Line provided early warning of any Soviet bomber attack.
  • The Semi Automatic Ground Environment- SAGE provided the command and control for the actual interception of any attack.
  • The interceptors of the Air Defense Command- The actual fighters that would engage any attack.

We’ll also take a look at the participation of our northern neighbor, Canada, and its cooperation and contributions to our mutual air defense.

Stay tuned.

1 thought on “Cold War Continental Air Defense- The Air Force as Guardians of the Homeland”

  1. My father worked in the SAGE in upstate New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s. He told me a story about how we (the USA) almost went to war with the USSR because the moon came over the horizon.

    Paul L. Quandt

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